Around 20 years ago, while touring the US during his first stint as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu paid a visit to his good friend, real estate developer Charles Kushner—a committed contributor to Israeli causes. He stayed overnight at Kushner’s New Jersey home and slept in the bedroom of Kushner’s teenaged son Jared, who temporarily shifted to the basement.
This month, when Netanyahu visited Washington DC to greet the new American president, he saw a familiar face in the White House crowd. Jared Kushner, now 36, is son-in-law to Donald Trump and has been appointed as a negotiator to “do peace” in West Asia.
The press in both countries has been awash with anecdotes about Jared Kushner’s close ties with Israel and its premier—like the one above, from The New York Times—since Trump’s inauguration. But there is little evidence that the prodigal son-in-law’s personal connection has brought a clearer vision about how to end the seven-decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Instead, Trump’s statement to the media after his meeting with Netanyahu has thrown the US’ West Asia policy into something of a disarray. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state (solutions),” Trump said. “I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.” This would imply that America was reneging on its decades-long official position as well as the international consensus: to push for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that would exist alongside Israel.
“It was an off-the-cuff remark. But now that Trump has said it, it gets a life of its own,” says Mehran Kamrava, a professor at Georgetown University’s campus in Doha, Qatar, and the author of The Impossibility of Palestine: History, Geography, and the Road Ahead. “However, it also reflects reality. The two-state solution is not tenable any longer.”
Israel declared itself an independent Jewish state in 1948 following the migration of hundreds of thousands of persecuted Jews from Europe to the historical Palestine. Its creation, in turn, forced Arab Palestinians out of their own land to other parts of the region and beyond. It also divided the remaining Palestinian territory into two non-contiguous parts—the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law
Innumerable UN resolutions and peace proposals sponsored by the US, European nations as well as other Arab countries have since been calling for the creation of a Palestinian state. Israel, too, accepts the idea in principle—but insists that Israeli security must not be imperilled by a separate Palestine. In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza following the Six-Day War with Arab nations and has been building Jewish settlements in the West Bank, especially since the 1990s. These settlements, crisscrossing the region, have forced West Bank residents to live in disconnected and ever-shrinking spaces that are nominally administered by the so-called Palestinian Authority, but effectively remain under Israeli control and depend on Israel for the necessities of life.
Thus, even though Israel continues to pay lip service to the two-state solution, Kamrava says the ground reality renders inconceivable a Palestinian state. “As a geographic entity, Palestine does not exist. Israelis have undermined that by creating strategically located settlements,” he says. “You can’t move from one part of Palestine to another without having to cross an Israeli settlement.”
With lots of talk but little progress, the popularity of the two-state solution has been dissipating among both Jews and Palestinians. Only half of Israel’s Jews supported it in a poll this month, conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research (TSC) at Tel Aviv University and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah. Among Palestinians, the number was 44 per cent—down from 51 per cent in June.
But support for the one-state solution, or turning all of Israel and Palestine into a single political unit, is lower still: 36 per cent among Palestinians and 19 per cent among Israeli Jews.
A single state would solve the problem of Jewish settlements and how they divvy up Palestinian areas within the West Bank—as well as the non-contiguity of West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But it will also have a majority of Palestinian citizens and thus dissolve Israel’s character as a ‘Jewish state’. Indeed, Palestinians could end up controlling the government if it is formed through popular vote. These prospects raise the fear that Israel would, in fact, run the single state as a Jewish ethnocracy rather than a popular democracy—turning Palestinians into second-class citizens with limited or no political rights.
“That is a lot of ambiguity over what a one-state solution would look like,” Kamrava says. “Some of it is unintentional and some of it is deliberate. I doubt we would see any substantive progress being made in this regard.” Indeed, a day after Trump’s press conference with Netanyahu, US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said her government remains committed to the two-state solution.
“Talking about the two-state solution,” Kamrava says, “enables Israel to maintain the status quo while continuing with increased settlements, increased dismemberment of Palestine, and at the same time suggesting that there is a peace process that is active and ongoing. So the two-state solution serves Israel better because its perpetuates the illusion of some sort of progress being made,” he says.
Dana El Kurd, 26, was born in Jerusalem but her Arab family migrated to the US when she was seven. Kurd spent her childhood all over the country—in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, California and Texas. “We have always been nomads,” she jokes, referring to Arabs’ nomadic history. She hopes that Trump’s impromptu statement would force the Palestinian leadership and public to “come to terms with the fact that (the two-state solution) is already dead in the water and make some hard decisions”. It could possibly lead to “an end to the status quo since 1994, which is the Palestinian Authority” and maybe make Palestinians “give up on the two-state solution and say we want equal rights” within a single state.
Surprisingly, support for the two-state solution is the highest among Arabs living inside Israel—82 per cent according to the TSC-PSR poll. Among them is Ahmad Agbaria, 37, who hails from a village close to Nazareth in the north of Israel. Now a doctoral student of Arab intellectual history at the University of Texas at Austin in the US, Agbaria says he was deeply dismayed to hear Trump talk about a single state.
“I understand why many Palestinians want to be Israeli citizens. They have given up hope of their own state,” he explains. “They are already living with Jews without any rights. Even their identity cards are issued by Israel, not the Palestinian Authority. They say, ‘We are anyway under Israeli control. Why don’t we officially be a part of Israel and enjoy access to everything?’ They look up to Israeli Arabs and consider us lucky. But I tell them they are the ones who are lucky because they can stay true to their Palestinian identity, while all my life I have tried to hide my identity because I want to fit in.”
Palestinians should not forget the experience of Israeli Arabs when they think about a one-state solution, he adds. “We are 1.5 million Arabs inside Israel. We have just five cities and more than 470 villages. Arabs live divided into small tribes rather than together. It undermines our Palestinian identity. This is how they are going to treat Palestinians if we go towards a one-state solution.”
Kamrava fears that Israel’s endgame could be to force Palestinians into ‘reservations’ of the sort American-Indians live on in the US. “That is the likely outcome for Palestine. You could have these human warehouses where Palestinians are isolated and segregated from each other, living in small containers. They would have their own laws but it won’t be a country. They would suffer high rates of unemployment and a limited economy, surrounded by Israel on all sides.”
Kurd says she has little doubt that “if Israel annexes the West Bank tomorrow, it will be a Jewish ethnocracy and apartheid”. And yet, she is more hopeful about the possibility of Arabs and Jews living together in a single state. “Since 1948, Palestinians have been denied their rights,” she adds. “It will be a hard-fought battle to get equal rights, but we will have to fight for it.”
By Saif Shahin in Ohio